The Power of an Example
Minorities and women would be drawn to engineering if more instructors looked like them.
Opinion by Carlotta A. Berry
Last November 1, I shared my experiences as a female African-American engineering professor at a small, private Midwest college in a New York Times op-ed (They Call Me Doctor Berry). In response, I received an outpouring of messages from grateful readers of all ages, genders, and races. Some, like the lone female professor in an industrial engineering department, recounted similar tales of having to “run faster and jump higher” to gain basic levels of respect, such as students using one’s formal title – a courtesy automatically afforded to male colleagues. Others described having to prove themselves every day as among the few black women on the engineering team or faculty.
One memorable post came from a white, male medical professor. He recalled his own days as a student doing clinical rounds with his best friend and classmate, a brilliant Haitian-American woman, whom attending physicians often mistook for a nurse or cleaning crew member. As a result, he now talks with his residents and students about gender, race, and ever-present biases in medicine, trying to hit the problem head-on. Another writer, who teaches a doctoral education course, intends to include my column when the class discusses professional identity and thanked me for contributing in a “small but ongoing way” to more reflective practice.
I became an engineering professor because I never had one who looked like me, acted like me, or even seemed interested in me. I was typically one of just two or three female students and often the only African-American student. I wanted to show that the profession could be cool, interesting, exciting, engaging, and, most important, diverse.
Although I went to work for industry as an engineer to pay off student loans, I pursued a Ph.D. as soon as possible and, upon graduation, selected institutions where I felt I could be a catalyst for the change I sought in the academy. I wanted to teach at a place where my efforts would be recognized and where I could really make a difference.
Finding such a school, I worked with colleagues to create a scholarship and professional development program to recruit women and underrepresented minorities to engineering (ROSE-BUD), created a multidisciplinary minor in robotics, and worked with the FIRST Robotics program to draw more K-12 students to science, engineering, and math. Every day, I share my passion for teaching while also showing that engineering is not just for nerds or boys or the dominant culture.
On some levels, I have been able to change perceptions – at least in my classroom. However, many elements of engineering have barely budged. As of 2012, ASEE data indicated that there were only 140 African-American women in the engineering professoriate. That’s about 4 percent of current female engineering faculty – an increase of 1 percent since 2001. (Between 2001 and 2012, the number of African-American engineering faculty increased from 2 to 3 percent.) In November 2013, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research stated that women of color represent only 5.7 percent of all STEM faculty.
In an effort to increase these numbers, books have been written, organizations formed, and conferences held. In fact, I joined with a small group of African-American female engineering faculty to present panels on the subject at the Frontiers in Education, National Society of Black Engineers, and Keeping Our Faculties conferences.
Statistics don’t always spur action, however. Sometimes a personal example can illuminate a problem that some may not recognize or appreciate – as I learned from the torrent unleashed by my op-ed piece. I hope my words, and my presence in the engineering classroom, will inspire others to join the mission to increase diversity and encourage more young women and minorities to pursue careers in STEM. To change perceptions, it helps if the face of the profession better reflects the world in which we live.
Carlotta A. Berry is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @DrCABerry.